Yet another study confirms the huge benefits of investing in early childhood education

By Tazra Mitchell - N.C. Justice Center

On Tuesday of last week, early education workers and thought leaders joined together at the North Carolina Child Care Coalition’s annual Early Education Forum in Raleigh. Among their top objectives: to discuss some of the ways to use research, policy, and advocacy to address some big problems — most notably, the high cost of early education and the challenges that confront the professionals employed in the early care and education workforce.

Those concerns are substantiated in a new Economic Policy Institute report that details the high cost of child care in every state. In the new report, “It’s time for an ambitious national investment in America’s children,” the authors outline the benefits of public investment in early childhood care and education (ECCE) – to children, families, society, and the economy. They also propose that lawmakers undertake critical public investments, including:

The public provision of early childhood education, including high-quality pre-kindergarten education;

Subsidies to allow parents to afford high-quality child care; and

Expanded public funding for home visits by trained nurses to help parents both before and after childbirth.

These recommendations would help address some of issues that attendees raised at Tuesday’s forum. Child care is one of the biggest expenses that North Carolina families face. It’s grown so large that infant care in North Carolina now costs $2,677 more per year on average than in-state tuition at a four-year public college. High costs mean that many families cannot send their children to high-quality education centers – a problem worsened by long waiting lists that confront low income families seeking public subsidies. That hurts children, families, and our economy.

Annual child care costs are $9,255 on average for a North Carolina family with an infant and $7,592 for a family with a four-year-old, according to the EPI report. Only a small chunk of families are able to absorb those prices and still be able to pay for food, rent, utilities and the other things that go into the family budget. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services currently defines child care as affordable if it costs 10 percent or less of a family’s income (and has recently proposed an even more ambitious measure of 7 percent).

Unfortunately, even by the current 10 percent metric, only around one in four of North Carolina families are able to afford infant care. This needs to change – both to aid families and our economy.

If state lawmakers were to increase subsidies and cap out-of-pocket infant care expenditures at 10 percent of income, North Carolina’s economy would receive a huge boost as a result of increased labor force participation – especially by women. Indeed, EPI estimates that the state economy would grow by fully 1.5 percent, or $7.1 billion. Nationally, these gains to gross domestic product would also boost federal tax revenue by roughly $70 billion annually, providing a very large base of economic support to finance this ambitious investment in America’s children. Such an ambitious public investment in early childhood would not only make it more affordable for families, it would raise wages for workers and increase quality in the early childhood sector.

Such improvements are badly needed in North Carolina, according to expert testimony at Tuesday’s forum. ECCE professionals are earning wages that are too little to pay for the basics, according to Anna Carter’s research for the Child Care Services Association. The ECCE workforce has a median wage far below what it takes to make ends meet — just $16 per hour for Directors, $10.97 per hour for Teachers, and $9.97 per hour for Assistant Teachers. Wages for these workers have increased less than 50 cents per hour since 2011. Even worse, nearly 40 percent of educators need at least one type of public assistance to meet their household budget.

Indeed, many educators serving our youngest children earn too little to afford early childhood for their own children. A typical early childhood educator would have to spend 47.6 percent of her earnings to put her own child in infant care, according to EPI’s findings. A brave woman shared her experience with this cruel reality at the forum. She has been an early education teacher for the last twelve years but her two-worker family income is too low for her to afford high-quality care for her two-year old son.

Happily, as the EPI study makes clear, it doesn’t have to be this way. Better policy decisions by elected officials can help her family and thousands of others facing the twin burdens of low wages and high ECCE costs. With the right kind of forward-thinking investments North Carolina can lift up children, workers and the economy. With the opening of the 2016 state legislative session just weeks away, let’s hope state leaders are paying attention.

Tazra Mitchell is a Policy Analyst at the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center.

By Tazra Mitchell

N.C. Justice Center

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